Law and Conversation

April 15, 2011

More on Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor–and DRA 2005 and Medicaid, too

I recently posted about the sad last days of the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Warfield Simpson, still a controversial figure 75 years after King Edward VIII of England abdicated his throne to marry her.  Today’s edition of Arts and Letters Daily provides a link to a review of a new biography by Hugo Vickers, “Where’s Wallis?  Behind Closed Doors:  The Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor.”  Having read Caroline Blackwood‘s “The Last of the Duchess” with horrified fascination, I’m putting Vickers’s book on my list.

Even the duchess’s vast resources couldn’t save her from dementia, nor is it even clear to what extent they might have alleviated the unhappiness of her last years.  And the duchess apparently didn’t put her affairs in particularly good order before the disease overtook her. Dementia and the cost of health care are huge topics in the news these days, and, accordingly, how best to advise clients on their estate plans is of great concern to lawyers.  I have an article in the current issue (April 2011) of the Illinois Bar Journal on the effect of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 on Illinois’s new Medicaid regulations.  I was pleased to get to reference “A Penny Saved Can Be a Penalty Earned:  Nursing Homes, Medicaid Planning, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, and the Problem of Transferring Assets,” a scholarly but very readable article by Catherine M. Reif, a recent graduate of Northern Illinois University’s College of Law, which appeared in vol. 34, No. 2 of New York University’s Review of Law and Social Change.  Though federal (or state) regulations do not exactly make for fun reading, Cathy’s article drew me in right away through her use of story.  Using as examples four hypothetical elderly women, all 72, all of whom earned the same amount of money and own the same sort of modest home, but each of whom made different lifestyle choices, Cathy explains the law’s disparate effect and makes even this complex subject understandable.

Readers, can you think of any examples of story helping you to understand a complex topic?

February 21, 2011

Read This: biography, probate law, & scandal – Pamela Churchill Harriman

One of the greatest reading pleasures is a nice, meaty biography.  If some of the material’s scandalous, so much the better, as long as it’s clearly and thoroughly documented.

Far from being dusty and dull, probate matters may arise from every bit as much passion and scandal as divorces.  So a well-researched biography of a subject with both probate and divorce matters in her life is practically guaranteed to be a fascinating story.

The obituary of Kathleen Harriman Mortimer the other day in the New York Times reminded me that her stepmother’s life included multiple divorces and probate issues, all of which are documented and explained in Sally Bedell Smith‘s impeccably researched biography, “Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman.”

More thoroughly, that would be Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman.  (To be fair to Bedell Smith and her publisher, there was only so much space on the book’s dust jacket for its subject’s name along with her charming photo.)

Check this book out if you have any interest in 20th century history and government, or Winston Churchill, or social climbers and high society, or scandal, or probate law. Bedell Smith’s subject, who was Churchill’s daughter-in-law throughout World War II and U.S. ambassador to France in he 1990s, at the end of her life, was on intimate terms with many prominent and wealthy movers and shakers in business and politics, as Bedell Smith describes and documents.

Kathleen Harriman Mortimer became chums with Pamela Churchill in London during the war.  As Smith recounts, Pamela, who was around the same age as Kathleen, embarked on an affair with Kathleen’s father, Averell Harriman, a few months after her husband, Randolph Churchill, went off to war and a few more months after giving birth to their son, named Winston in honor of Pamela’s father-in-law.

After a divorce from Randolph, many more affairs, another marriage, and thirty more years, Pamela and Averell reunited, rekindled their affair, and finally married.  His death in 1985 made her fabulously rich.  In 1994, Kathleen and other Harriman heirs sued Pamela for mismanaging their inheritance.  Bedell Smith meticulously describes the fascinating personal and legal background for that suit.

Mortimer herself married into another well-connected family.  An article on the Mortimer family from the New York Observer reminded me of the ancient and intricate web of alliances among Europe’s royal families and of the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Do stop by again on Wednesday, when I’ll have three recommendations for other biographies touching on or suggesting probate law issues.  In the meantime, I’d love to see comments on biographies that you’ve enjoyed.

February 18, 2011

Looking for a few good (practicing) lawyer writers

Harrisburg, PA lawyer, booklover, and freelance writer Harvey Freedenberg recently asked me via Twitter whether I could name any practicing lawyers who write about law in the same way that doctors like Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, Atul Gawande, and Jerome Groopman write about medicine.

I haven’t read Selzer or Thomas, but I have read Gawande and Groopman, both of whom are not only very fine writers but also full-time practicing physicians.  But why couldn’t I think of any comparable practicing lawyer writers?  Freedenberg suggested Jeffrey Toobin, who’s a very fine writer indeed, but noted that he’s not a currently practicing lawyer.

I can think of practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of fiction–often legal fiction–and practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of legal materials or who blog about issues related to the practice of law, and nonpracticing lawyers who write very good articles about the legal profession.  But I can’t think of any practicing lawyers who have written nonfiction books and articles for the general public about the practice of law comparable to what those practicing doctors have written about the practice of medicine.

Groopman and Gawande seem enormously admirable to me, not only for their unflinching criticism of some common current medical practices, but also for owning up to and honestly writing about mistakes they have personally made in the course of their medical practices.  I know that there are plenty of very thoughtful lawyers who are every bit as concerned with improving the legal profession and the practice of law as those doctors are about improving the medical profession and the practice of medicine, but it strikes me that most practicing lawyers direct their energies into bar association activities toward that end, not to writing books or articles about the practice of law for consumption by the general public.

Readers, why should that be?  Certainly, there are ethical issues such as privilege, which Freedenberg noted as an issue in our exchanges, that lawyers must take care with when they write about the practice of law.  But do those issues–which are also present for doctors–preclude lawyers from writing comparably to Groopman, Gawande, and their fellow doctor-writers?  Are there other factors at play?  Is there a niche that’s waiting to be filled?  Or are Freedenberg and I just overlooking some obvious good answers to his question?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

A while ago I wrote about The Paris Review’s making its interviews with authors available online.  Now, I’m intrigued by the literary magazine’s new advice column, also available online.  The delightful Ramona Koval, host of “The Book Show” on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Radio National, interviewed editor Lorin Stein, who writes the column, a few days ago.  Stein had some great advice for one reader who wondered which translation of Proust he should read, a question I’ve also been pondering since Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation gave me quite a bit of trouble a couple of years ago.  (Stein’s recommendation:  first read Lydia Davis’s new translation, then go to the most recently revised Moncrieff version.)  Perhaps Mr. Stein would give me some advice on another matter I’ve been struggling with:  which translation to read of Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji?” Waley, Seidensticker, or the gorgeously illustrated and annotated version by Royall Tyler?  Readers, if you have an opinion, I’d love your advice on that question, too.

December 9, 2010

Three fun books on food

For my Read This! post on Monday I highlighted Jeffrey Steingarten’s “It Must’ve Been Something I Ate,” a delightful compilation of Steingarten’s columns on food from Vogue magazine.  Today I have three other books on food as part of my weekly series recommending three books with a common theme that tell great stories:

1) Heat, by Bill Buford.  Account of the amateur chef and former Granta magazine editor of learning culinary techniques by working in the restaurant kitchen of his pal, renowned chef Mario Batali.  For a fun book group activity, count the number of times Batali uses the f-word.

2) Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.  Memoir of how the Travel Channel superstar got interested in food and started his career.  Bourdain tells a great story and doesn’t flinch when it comes to the less attractive aspects of his own behavior, one of the marks of a really good memoirist.

3)  Food Matters:  A Guide to Conscious Eating, by Mark Bittman.  Bittman’s articles on food and cooking in The New York Times are superb examples of storytelling; as I noted on Monday, the one on no-knead bread can change your life.  In this book, he recounts his own journey toward awareness of what he eats.  As a bonus, he includes a number of recipes.

If you have an interest in cooking, the forums on ChefTalk.com are a great place to go for advice. 

Three’s a lovely number, but any list of three books necessarily omits many others that are equally good or even better.  What food books have you enjoyed?

UPDATE:  Commenting on an editorial by David Frum on CNNMark Bittman weighs in on obesity and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

December 6, 2010

Read this: Jeffrey Steingarten on food

Today’s Read This! recommendation is especially for those who love both good food and good writing.  And it’s a book by a lawyer, to boot:  “It Must’ve Been Something I Ate,” by Jeffrey Steingarten.

The book is a compilation of columns that Steingarten has written for Vogue magazine as its food critic.  One of his specialties is examining conventional wisdom to see how it holds up, a skill which he displays to particular effect in his essays on salt, MSG, chocolate, and cheese.

As a lawyer myself, I read “Cheese Crise,” his essay on raw milk cheese and the FDA, with especial delight. 

Steingarten begins by recounting a Parisian cheesemonger’s telling him with satisfaction, “Not even the dogs at Kennedy Airport will smell through this,” while wrapping in several layers of plastic and carefully taped paper a package of raw milk cheese for Steingarten to take back on the plane to the US.  With satisfaction equal to the cheesemonger’s, Steingarten then reveals his own elegantly simple and foolproof scheme for getting food items from abroad that are prohibited for sale in the US through US customs, which, as an additional advantage, ensures that he’ll never be prosecuted for violating any law:  “My secret method is called declaring everything.”

For more good writing on food by a renowned nutritionist, check out Marion Nestle’s blog, “Food Politics.”  Lately Nestle has been writing about S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed the Senate last week.

And for still more good, intelligent food writing, check out Mark Bittman’s columns in the New York Times (where Steingarten’s work has also appeared).  If you like fresh, crusty bread, his column on Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread, accompanied by Lahey’s recipe and an instructive video, may change your life.

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